How to talk to children about art

Discover a series of advices and proposals to start talking with children about a concrete experience of art
1. Experiences and approaches to dialogue with children in Norway

Evaluation work with the participation of children and young people is important to give us access to direct feedback from the target audience, but it is equally important that children are involved in processes that allow them to reflect on and describe their own experience of art.

Below, Scott Rogers, former Director at Concerts Norway presents some of the experiences collected in Norway with different approaches to dialogue with children about art based on relevant research results and the work of the Norwegian “Barneombudet” (the Ombudsman for children).

Photo credit to Christian Brandt

2. Pre-conditions for the dialogue

In their research report on listening and consultation with children, Clark, McQuail and Moss (2003) point out several key preconditions for dialogue with children. 

To enter in a dialogue with children one must: 

  • Be clear on how to include children in a dialogue and to what extent the children's views will be taken into use. 
  • Take into account variables such as - time of day, the time frame for the dialogue and the relationship to the adults involved. 
  • Be prepared to help children use different methods to reveal their opinions, to listen sincerely to what the children have to say,  lead the dialogue without judging, let the children ask questions, be able to put aside any adult agendas. 
  • Be prepared to involve parents and other relevant adults 
  • Create activities that are fun and varied so that children of all ages are motivated to join voluntarily 
  • Provide the involved children with feedback about the dialogue and the value of their participation. 

Clark, McQuail and Moss also describe several techniques in their research: observation, interviews, structured activities and multisensory approach

3. Observation

Observation is no neutral evaluation technique, but can extract key elements into a larger evaluation process. Observation as an evaluation technique is about seeing, interpreting and understanding. Observing children's behavior during an art experience can give us insights into how we can improve communication, dissemination and production of artistic programs. 

A systematic approach is needed to make the most of our observations. The process should be divided into several parts: observation, description, analysis and interpretation. It is appropriate to define some focus questions before the observation. What information do we want to collect using observation? What should we look for? How? Why? How can we confirm our impression from the observation? How will we use the information we collect? What other assessment strategies can be used as a parallel? 

During the observation, we should look for patterns that emerge over time. The ABC model (antecedent-behavior-consequence) is often used for linking observation to analysis and interpretation. The model is used to observe and document behavior, but also to document what happened just before and just after the observed behavior. In this way, one can better spot what triggers, rewards or motivates the behavior. 

The problematic aspect of observation as an evaluation tool is that it requires interpretation, and different occupation groups see signs of different things in the same group of students. Some look for physical behavior while others have more focus on social behavior, or behavior that deviates from the expected norms. Therefore, the more useful observations are made by several people from different disciplines who summarize their observations in a dialogue afterwards. An evaluation dialogue with an artist, a teacher, a sociologist or a behavioral psychologist provides a wealth of divergent views, but also a more comprehensive understanding of the students than the observations of a single person.

4. Different interview and dialogue techniques
  • Individual interviews is a widely used form of evaluation for young children. It is, however, important to be aware of the limitations of this approach. The phrasing of questions is very important in the interview situation in order for the interviewer to avoid asking leading questions or suggesting specific directions or conclusions. Many children are used to a context in which they answer what they think the school /the adults percieve as a "correct" answer. This can result in the children trying to guess what the adults want as opposed to present their own views and opinions. Additionally, aolescents tend to be more negatively biased in their daily lives (adolescent negativity bias, Merrick and Hatim. 2007), and this can be a factor that should be taken into consideration in the evaluation. 
  • Group interviews are often a good alternative to individual interviews. They put less pressure on the individual child and tend to encourage different discussion and comment forms. The size and composition of the group is important in order to get the discussion going. From the 5th grade and onwards, social hierarchies are established and become more influential, and as a consequence, the children's expectations to each other and their own understanding of the social roles may influence the scope and quality of the dialogue (Brown, Bradford, Clasen and Eicher. 1986). Lewis underlines that group discussions and interviews provide answers with broader scope and depth, children feel more free to express themselves, and the validity increases since discussions create consensus as well ass divergent views. (Lewis 1992). 
  • Child-to-child interviews can be appropriate in some contexts. The adult becomes more of an observer. This can reduce some of the disadvantages of the adults-talking-to-children-in-a-school-setting. It also does something for the vocabulary and dialogue dynamics of the children. 
  • Questionnaires. Questionnaires are seemingly simple to design and use, but they provide little data, whether or not they are carefully designed and implemented. Use of questionnaires for children (especially in school) looks suspiciously like a test, depends on reading skills and understanding, and it is difficult to arrange if the response group has a wide agespan. Attempts have been conducted in which children draw "emojis" to describe their reaction. Although such drawings tells us something about the childrens' reactions, they tell us little about the reason for the child's particular response and therefore provides little information that can be used onwards.
5. Childrens' personal experience with an art event

Children have little experience with and a limited vocabulary when describing their own experiences with a specific art event or a work of art. Many dialogues with children remain superficial ("This was fun,"I liked it, "It was boring"), and it is therefore important to develop a questioning process that help the children put into words what they experience and feel in the meeting with art. 

Kate Hevner (1936) was among the first to work with different groups of adjectives allowing children to navigate in a descriptive landscape. She discovered that although children were rarely able to come up with descriptive words themselves, they were able to recognize words from a list arranged in relation to rough characteristics and sublists with various subleties. Her adjective circle has since then been refined repeatedly, and the principle remains an important point of departure for dialogue with children about things they have dificulty describing.


In a fieldwork about children and listening conducted by Concerts Norway (Ruud, 2014), a customized adjective circle was used to map the audience's perception of the mood in a selection of pieces of music. This is a tool that allows us to look at an overall audience experience while giving children a language to describe future experiences with art.

6. The IAN model as a structure for dialogue with children and young people

Concert Norway's program council has experimented with an interview guide constructed according to the IAN model. This allows input from reference groups of pupils to be compared with the reviews of the program council. In this context a short practical guide for interview preparation and an interview guide were prepared by Merete Solli and Catherine Jacobsen in Concerts Norway. 

The frame of the interview: 

  • Agreement: always make sure to make arrangments with the teacher ahead. Set aside a measured amount of time (eg. 20 min) and a place to conduct the interview. 

  • Who: It's fine if the teacher has selected a representative sample of students in advance. Ask for a varied or randomly assembled group in order for the school not to present a group of the most intelligent and conscientious students. We want a cross-section of pupils. It should also be specified if you want to talk to students from the same grade or  from different age groups. 

  • Group size: 3-5 is  a good group size for a dialogue. If they are too many, some will be excluded. Larger groups have a natural dynamics towards consensus, and the social hierarchies of the school will become apparent. Smaller groups make it easier to for each student to express themselves, and often the input will be more varied and personal. 

  • When: you may want to make the interview not too long after the art experience, while students still have it fresh in their memory. Do not let the interview take place in the lunch hour, or after school. The session will then be perceived as compulsory and students will be less motivated to particpate. 

  • Where: any location at school where the dialogue can take place in peace and quiet, while the students are in "school mode" as opposed to break mode (as they will be in eg. the play ground or cafeteria) 

  • Length: Not too long and not too short. It depends on what you want to ask and how many students participate. Half an hour max, and 10 minutes minimum. 

How to ask the questions: 

  • Journalistic approach: no yes or no questions, be sure follow-up questions, get students to describe, explain why, deepen. 

  • Educational approach: make students feel safe, small talk a bit first, give a true representation of who you are and why you are there. Getting to know your students. Make them confident that they can say what they really think, not to "brag" or answer "clever". Avoid leading questions and questions directed at superficial values ( "Did you like the show?"). Feel free to ask open-ended questions that provide space for in-depth discussions and own views.
7. Frame for dialogue based on the IAN model axes


Were the musicians interested in communicating with you as an audience? Did you get the feeling that the musicians played for you, or for themselves? (communication / commitment) 


Were the musicians good at at playing? (Musical skill)
(Note: this is difficult for learners of all ages to consider.) Did you feel that you got to know the musicians during the concert? (Communication skills) 


What was the point of the show? Do you think the concert was about something? (Thematic relevance) Why was this a concert for you? Do you think the concert is suitable for you and your friends? (Personal relevance) 

Summary of axes 

(Ex. "You have presented a picture of a concert with good musicians that did not quite reach you. Is that correct?") 

(NB: It is possible to go directly to a comprehensive dialogue without defining the axes Intent, ability and necessity) 

Comprehensive Dialogue 

What do you think was the best part of the concert? (Begin the discussion on the basis of the strength of the concert) 

Is there anything from the concert you remember particularly well? (the strongest impression) 

Have you heard this kind of music before? (Expressive distance) 

If you remember it: 

- Can you describe how the concert began? (impression) 

- What happened along the way? (Perception of concert form and drive) 

- How did the concert end? (Perception of the concert form) 

Was there anything in the concert you didn't like so well? (Perception of weaknesses) 

In case of student involvement in concert: 

What do you think about how you were involved in the concert (clap and sing along etc.)? (Perception of complicity) 

Proposed changes 

If you could change something about the concert, what would change? Why? How? (Proposals for adjustment) 

Final assessment 

Would you recommend this concert to other schools?

8. Print model with questions

Here you can download the preconditions for dialogue with children and the frame for dialogue based on the IAN model developed by Concerts Norway now Kulturtanken.

Dialogue with children about art

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